4 June 2015
By Mary Catherine Adams
Geologist and environmental chemist Maya Wei-Haas defended her thesis last month on flame retardants in lakes and streams of Arctic Alaska. Rather than set off on new studies with her Ph.D., though, Wei-Hass will spend her summer on a different kind of adventure: working as a science reporter at National Geographic in Washington, D. C.
The American Geophysical Union (AGU) is sponsoring Wei-Hass’s tenure at the magazine as the organization’s 2015 AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellow. The program, run by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), places about a dozen scientists at news media outlets around the United States each year to get immersive experiences of science journalism and to bring scientific expertise into newsrooms.
Along with her love for science, Wei-Haas has “always had a passion for art and storytelling,” she said. “In part, that’s why I’ve always loved geology. There’s something artistic about rocks…they’re just very beautiful.” This passion led her to the Mass Media Fellowship program. She hopes to put her experiences to use at National Geographic.
Those experiences have included many field trips above the Arctic Circle in pursuit of scientific knowledge. In her junior year at Smith College, Wei-Haas traveled to Svalbard, a Norwegian island chain northeast of mainland Norway, as part of an undergraduate research experience program run by Mount Holyoke College. The students sailed to the island over waters so cold that each passenger was required to wear a survival suit. This field site was where Wei-Haas did “real” research for the first time.
“They introduced us to the field sites…and what instrumentation was available and said ‘Ask questions,’” Wei-Haas said. “It was pretty amazing. It felt like an old-school adventure of Arctic explorers.”
Research on Brominated Flame Retardants
Ultimately, Wei-Haas graduated with a B.A. in geology and then moved to the Ohio State University, where she earned her doctorate in geology this May for her work on brominated flame retardants. These chemical compounds are found in many common household goods and are neurotoxins that have become ubiquitous in the environment.
The compounds degrade slowly, Wei-Haas said, and escape into the environment by clinging onto dust particles or simply evaporating into the air. Some scientists believe that these chemicals become more toxic over time, so Wei-Haas studies how long they stick around to better understand their environmental impact.
“My research is looking at their fate in the Arctic,” she said, where the flame retardants are suspected of causing renal lesions in polar bears, for example, and other health problems affecting Arctic animals. “It’s an interesting and slightly scary topic,” she said.
Scientific Images and Illustrations
While pursuing her doctorate, Wei-Haas also nurtured an interest in creating scientific illustrations, graphics, posters, and images. “I am so excited and honored to have been selected to work at National Geographic,” she said. “I can’t wait to learn all I can from the amazing staff [there] about both science journalism and scientific graphic design.”
Wei-Haas will be working with Erika Engelhaupt, the online science editor for the National Geographic website, who was the AGU-sponsored fellow in 2006.
“We’re really excited to have her at National Geographic,” Engelhaupt said. “As a former AGU-sponsored Mass Media Fellow, it’s really nice to be able to see the next generation of science writers and communicators coming up through the [program].”
Wei-Haas begins her fellowship this week. AGU has sponsored at least one fellow from the Earth and space sciences in the program every year since 1997.
To see some of Wei-Haas’s science illustrations and graphics and also to read some of her “journal” stories from the field, visit her website. For more information about AGU Mass Media Fellows and how to apply for the fellowship, click here.